Over 150 years ago, Henry Thoreau asked a haunting question. Since I first read On Walden Pond almost forty years ago, it's shaped my life, my work and my goals. His question? He simply asked if it wasn't possible that we could live better than we do, that our lives might be better than they are. What a thought!
Thoreau wasn't a critic of any particular social movement or political party. He wasn't complaining about working conditions or high taxes or unfair bureaucrats. His concern was far more personal than that. He wondered about how we use our time. He wondered what we think about, who we hang-out with, and what we read. He was amazed that in a world of beauty, we spend so much time complaining. He thought it curious that in a world where a hammock or patch of shade might foster a relaxing nap, so many of us spend our time running from place to place. He thought it odd that we are so worried and stressed and always short of time.
His solution? He went to the woods, built a cabin, planted beans, went fishing, and wrote one of the most powerful books in the English language. He often wondered if he was one of the poorest men in Concord (since he had so little), or one of the richest (since he could do without so much).
Obviously, our world has resources Thoreau never imagined. We have access to entertainment and opportunities beyond comprehension. We live in a world where travel, education, financial security and personal freedom are available to all. Compared to the 1840's, when the most powerful thing on earth was a steam engine and most people never ventured more than a few miles from their birthplace, our choices are more complex and more troubling. But the question remains and becomes even more personal: How shall we live as free and responsible people?
As I watch our political leaders wrestle with health care, global warming, budget deficits, partisanship and more, it's easy to get caught up in the turmoil of our times. The financial crisis affects each of us. The world "out there" touches our homes and our wallets. It's easy to get become over-whelmed, to put our heads down and just keep trudging ahead. Don't do that! Don't let yourself get caught in the rat-race. As Lilly Tomlin observed, even if you win, you still end up a rat and that's no life for a human being. Choose your values, your priorities and live accordingly!
Perhaps the most radical thing a human being can do is to quietly live their own life, on their own terms, in their own way.
I doubt many of us will follow Thoreau's path to the woods. That was his path; in most cases it won't be ours. But I do wonder about the bumper stickers that recommend we "kill" our televisions. I wonder about folks who cut up their credit cards or start new businesses during a recession. I wonder about folks who start piano lessons in mid-life, or go back to college, or learn to paint.
I like Thoreau's advice that we should march to the beat of our own drummer, "no matter how faint or far away." Live your own life! Work at tasks that have meaning and purpose. And when you're done, take a nap, play, or help a neighbor. Live in a community that reflects your values and nourishes you every day. Live as large as you wish, but no larger and certainly not smaller.